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Hope meets Simon Gillespie
Art Restorer

Hope meets Simon Gillespie | Kidspiration

Suppose you found a really beautiful old painting, but there were dirty fingerprints all over the canvas, and a rather large tear. You wouldn’t run for the dish soap and a bucket of water to fix it. Instead, you’d need to find an art restorer, someone who knows just how to clean and mend paintings without damaging them further.

Simon Gillespie has been fixing old, and new, paintings for over 30 years. He has his own restoration business, Simon Gillespie Studio, on Bond Street in London, where he and six team members work on paintings that may be covered with old varnish, dust, dirt, along with previous attempts to “fix” cracks and chips. Even modern paintings can be damaged or torn and need restoration.

Finding the right solvent to take off old varnish can sometimes take up to 40 different tries with various formulas, but once the dirt, gunk, and varnish are gone, restoring a picture to its original condition also means sitting very close to the canvas and working on one very small bit or section of the painting at a time. Bit by bit, the restorer moves across the painting, mending tears and daubing on new paint where the old has chipped off or been cleaned before.

His team uses modern pigments to touch up problem areas and fill the holes, devoting “hours of patient work with a tiny, fine pointed brush made from Russian sable to retouching the damage,” as he told Bond Street Magazine.

Mr Gillespie decided to become a restorer when he visited a restoration studio in Mexico City. After two apprenticeships, studying chemistry, and learning as much art history as he could, he was ready to start his business. Today he does restorations for galleries, auction houses, and private collectors. But after working on tiny patches of a painting for hours at a time, what does he do when he has free time?

“Outside of work, I enjoy climbing mountains,” he says, “the higher, the better!”

In this episode, Hope interviews Simon Gillespie, art restorer, in Mayfair, London.



Hope:
Hi. My name is Hope and today I’m in Mayfair, London. I’m meeting Simon Gillespie, who is one of the most famous art restorers in the UK. When paintings get old and dirty or damaged, Simon and his team restore them to their former glory. It’s as much a science as it is an art. Let’s go meet him.

Hi, Simon. I’ve heard a lot about you but I kind of what to know who you are and what you do.

Simon:
I’m Simon Gillespie. I have a business restoring paintings and looking after people’s works of art.

Hope:
And what’s been one of your favorite pieces of art to restore?

Simon:
That’s a good question. One of the favorite pieces was a self portrait, and this one was a particularly good one. It was by Frans Hals and he’s the most amazing painter with very long, big, confident brush strokes. There’s a moment when I realised I’d been in the studio for six hours. My wife phoned me at 12 at night and said, “Where are you? What are you doing?” And I hadn’t realized that I’d been stuck in a sort of time loop. And I was sitting there exactly as Frans Hals was, putting the little dots on.

Hope:
Wow.

Simon:
And I knew he was watching me on the back of my shoulder there.

Hope:
And does it ever get tiring having to work so long on a piece of art?

Simon:
Physically it gets very tiring. Sometimes you’re sitting there in a chair moving just that. And you end up at the end of the day with a crook in your back.

This picture of Henry the VIII, very, very famous image of the King, one of the most famous characters or kings in the world. But what has happened over 400 years, it’s become dirty. It’s been cleaned a number of times. What I’m doing is I’m trying to take off this yellow colour, bearing in mind that he should look – that colour should be as bright as this. And you can see where I’ve taken off the yellow varnish here. You can see his original colour coming through there. What I’m doing is I’m applying a little, tiny bit of, it’s alcohol-based and you can see the other painted colour on the swab. Now the bread is becoming much more clearer, whereas it looks a little bit cloudy here. It looks very shocking when it’s only a little square like that and you’re thinking gosh, it can’t be right. Nobody looks pink that that. You’re right, it does look shocking. But when the whole thing is cleaned, all the tones will make sense.

Hope:
Also if you could go back in time and meet one artist, who would you meet?

Simon:
Probably van Dyck; van Dyck was one of the other famous artists around and he learned how to paint with long, long brushes, confidently applying paint onto works of art. He was so good at it that he made friends with all the kings and the queens in Europe and traveled around. He didn’t live very long, but he was so productive and he was so confident about making his work. I love confidence.

Hope:
Yeah. I think I’d probably want to meet Vincent van Gogh because, you know, he suffered from like depression and people at the time hated him. I just thought some of his work and so beautiful and if only he could see how people look at it now.

Simon:
Completely. Yes.

Hope:
And also I was actually watching something the other day and it was talking about how artists used to get their colors by grinding down different things and I also found that really interesting.

Simon:
Which pigments do you know? Which colors do you know about?

Hope:
Well, I knew they used to grind up different bits of earth to get different colors.

Simon:
A lot of them are made out from natural materials like earth and they’re called umber, the Italian word. And there’s another one that’s called mummy which is actually made from ground up Egyptian mummies. It’s a pretty horrible idea that you’re painting with somebody’s ground up body. And then there’s another one, a very bright yellow, which is made from cows’ pee. The cow is fed mangos and mango leaves which is very, very intense yellow. And then of course the cow pees and makes this fantastic pool of yellow which is then dried. Sometimes, it’s not made anymore but I do have some very old pigment and it actually does smell of pee.

And these are some of the pigments that we use. These are all the umbers, those brown pigments there. And you can tell they’re new pigments because they’re so bright.

Hope:
What advice would you give to someone my age?

Simon:
The best thing to do is to go to university and you can learn about it. You can learn about the art history and you can learn about how to restore paintings. So you learn about all the different glues, all the different types of paint, how to clean things. You learn a little bit about chemistry. And all of those different things you can learn about in the three years of going to university.

Hope:
Thank you so much for talking to me and thank you for giving your time. Thank you.

Simon:
I very much enjoyed it. I really have enjoyed it actually. Very much enjoyed talking to you.

Hope:
Yeah. Me, too.

That brings us to the end of our visit but I hope you enjoyed meeting Simon as much as I did, and enjoyed finding out all about him and what he does. Okay, thanks for watching and I’ll see you next time.